ACLED Regional Overview – Asia (8 January 2019)
At the start of 2019, there was a slight decline in the overall levels of political violence and protest in South and Southeast Asia from late 2018. Still, the end of 2018 and beginning of 2019 was marked by large-scale political violence during the Bangladesh general elections, a significant increase in battles between the Myanmar military and Arakan Army in Myanmar, and a spate of bombings in southern Thailand tied to the separatist conflict.
Over the past three weeks, the main conflict in Afghanistan continued at a similar pace as earlier months, with neither the Taliban nor joint Afghan/NATO forces making significant gains. Fighting was most active in the provinces of Helmand, Nangarhar, and Ghazni. Moreover, the Islamic State (IS) was essentially inactive over the past few weeks, claiming only one attack in Jalalabad city during that period. On the other hand, operations by both Afghan and NATO forces continued to target IS positions in their stronghold of Nangarhar province, and also to a lesser degree in Kunar province. That being said, an unclaimed attack on 24 December targeting a Kabul compound housing the Ministry of Public Works and a nearby National Directorate of Security (NDS) office reportedly killed at least 43 combatants and included a suicide car bomb – a tactic often utilized by IS.
As a reaction to the relative stalemate characterizing the war with the Taliban, reconciliation talks took place over two days in Abu Dhabi on 17-18 December between representatives of the U.S., Taliban, and other countries. The talks were centered on the possibility of U.S. withdrawal from the country. While the talks themselves were kept private, a statement made by the U.S. envoy said the talks were productive (Al Jazeera, 20 December 2018). Following the talks, unconfirmed reports were received from “unnamed” U.S. officials which claimed that a partial withdrawal of around 7,000 American troops would occur over the following months, surprising a number of parties, including the Taliban, who stated: “Frankly speaking, we weren’t expecting that immediate US response… we are more than happy” (BBC, 21 December 2018). This comes soon after American President Donald Trump announced a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.
In Pakistan, several incidents of political violence were reported from across the country during the last weeks of December and the first week of January. Increasing number of political violence events were recorded in Karachi including the targeted killing of former Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan lawmaker Ali Raza Abidi and two party workers of Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP). On 30 December, after a brief exchange of gunfire, police recovered and defused an IED mounted on a stolen motorcycle by alleged members of Mufti Shakir group in Gulshan town in Karachi (Express Tribune, December 30, 2018).
Elsewhere, in Balochistan three incidents of landmine and remote explosion resulted in three reported fatalities, including one Frontier Corps official, and three civilians injured, including an Achakzai tribal leader.
With the onset of winter, several provinces throughout Pakistan have been facing increased load shedding in gas and electricity by private providers and the government. The situation was particularly acute in Sindh province, resulting in protests against the failure of the authorities to properly manage the gas supply in Jacobabad, Bhan Syedabad, Larkana and other cities across Sindh.
On 24 December, an accountability court in Islamabad sentenced Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader Nawaz Sharif to seven years of imprisonment and handed a fine of 2.5 million US dollars in the Al-Azizia Steel Mills corruption case. The case was about setting up steel mills in Saudi Arabia allegedly with corruption money (Indian Express, 3 January 2019). The verdict prompted clashes between the police and PML-N supporters outside the accountability court in Islamabad. Following the verdict, PML-N supporters staged peaceful protests in various cities in Punjab province.
In the contested Kashmir region, a significant number of cross-border clashes between Indian and Pakistani forces were recorded across the Line of Control (LoC), resulting in the reported killings of seven people including security personnel and civilians. The Pakistan military also reported shooting down an Indian spy drone.
In India, militants continued to clash with state forces in Jammu & Kashmir, reportedly leaving 15 people dead. Six Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGuH) militants were allegedly killed during an armed clash with security forces Pulwama district on 22 December. Suspected militants were also involved in the murders of an off-duty Special Police Officer (SPO) and the brother of a Sikh sarpanch. On 28 December, masked youths stormed the Jamia Masjid in Srinagar city and raised pro-Islamic State slogans.
Elsewhere, security forces conducted a number of raids in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh state against members of Harkat-Ul-Harb-e-Islam, an organization associated with the Islamic State. Several suspected members of the outfit were detained and weapons were seized from their hideouts. Indian authorities allege that the group had planned attacks for New Year’s Day as well as later in January. Meanwhile, militant violence involving Maoist rebels and militant groups in the Northeast reduced during the last weeks of 2018 compared to previous weeks.
Elections were held in several states. In Punjab, panchayat and sarpanch (village council and head of village) elections were held leading to numerous incidents of political violence and demonstrations as well as allegations of voter fraud and voter intimidation. In Tripura, by-poll municipal elections took place on 27 December. There were few reports of violence between political parties, including a clash between the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and BJP workers in Bishalgarh city.
The ongoing controversy over the Sabarimala temple issue paralyzed Kerala during the last weeks of 2018. Women and girls of menstruating age – considered between 10 to 50 years – have traditionally been barred from entering the temple, until the Supreme Court overturned the ban on the entry of women to the temple (Al Jazeera, 4 January 2019). Hindu hardliners – supported by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – have violently opposed the entry of women to the temple. During the end of December and beginning of January, the Hindu right wing opposition turned more violent with many reported incidents of vandalism and rioting after three women managed to enter the temple, despite the prolonged shutdown aiming to keep women out.
Significant unrest was also reported between the BJP and the Indian national Congress over the Rafale jet deal controversy related to the multi-billion US dollar purchase of 36 fighter jets from France. BJP activists staged a nation-wide protest campaign accusing the Congress Party and its leader Rahul Gandhi of false propaganda, while Congress activists staged demonstrations and disrupted National Assembly meetings, demanding a reopening of the inquiry.
In Assam, 2019 started with widespread protests against the Union government’s move to pass the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016. The bill aims to grant Indian citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians who fled religious persecution in neighboring states. The timing of the protests overlapped with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the state, as part of the first phase of the general election campaign (Assam Tribune, 6 January 2019).
In Bangladesh, the ruling Awami League won a landslide victory in the general election on December 30 amidst large-scale violence and claims of voter rigging. The three weeks leading up to the election were marred by political violence mainly between the supporters of the two main parties, the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) (for more on Bangladesh’s violent bipartisanism, see this past ACLED piece). A high number of clashes, as well as attacks on political rivals and party offices, were reported from across the country, especially in Dhaka, Chittagong, Tangail and Rajshahi districts. Hundreds of people were injured and 37 fatalities were reported, most of which occurred on the day of polling. On 24 December the military was deployed in 389 upazilas and navy personnel in 18 coastal upazilas across Bangladesh to maintain peace and law & order during elections. The number of recorded events significantly dropped after 30 December.
In Nepal, 2018 ended with Khambuwan Mukti Morcha (Samyukta), an armed outfit fighting for separate statehood in eastern hill districts for the past eight years, surrendering weapons and pledging peaceful political activism. In addition, more than 500 Nepali Congress Mahasamiti members launched a signature campaign demanding that Nepal be restored as a Hindu state (Kathmandu Post, 17 December 2018). In the first week of 2019, a controversial lawmaker-elect of Rastriya Janata Party Nepal (RJPN), Resham Chaudhary, was sworn in as a Member of Parliament. Chaudhary was the main accused perpetrator of the Tikapur massacre of 2015, which resulted in the death of eight police personnel and an infant. Despite being sworn in as an MP, Chaudhary has been and remains imprisoned since he surrendered before the Kailali District Court on February 26, 2018 (Kathmandu Post, 3 January 2019).
In Sri Lanka, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Prime Minister ousted by President Maithripala Sirisena on 26 October, returned to his position after 51 days of political turmoil. The overall number of reported demonstration events reduced during the last weeks of December and remained low in the first week of 2019. However, some rioting by supporters of the United National Party (UNP) was reported shortly after Wickremesinghe’s reappointment, as well as vandalism in places of worship during the last week of December.
In Myanmar, on 21 December, the Myanmar military announced a four-month unilateral ceasefire covering Kachin and northern Shan state (Radio Free Asia, 21 December 2018). However, the ceasefire does not cover Rakhine state. Subsequently, over the past few weeks, fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA) has increased sharply in northern Rakhine state. On 4 January, the AA attacked four police outposts in Buthidaung township, reportedly killing 13 policemen. As well, fighting between ethnic armed organizations has continued in Shan state; in Namtu township, the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South (RCSS/SSA-S) and the Palaung State Liberation Front/Ta’ang National Liberation Army (PSLF/TNLA) continued to clash with each other.
In Thailand, there has been an upsurge in suspected separatist violence in the south in recent weeks. A number of bombs exploded across Songkhla and Narathiwat provinces in the last weeks of December. The bombings are believed to be the work of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) and are seen as an attempt to potentially destabilize the region prior to the general election (Asia Times, 2 January 2019). While the military recently announced plans to hold the general election in February, those plans appear to now be in question following the announcement that the new king will be coronated in May (Asia Times, 4 January 2019). The prospect of violence surrounding the election could be seen when a candidate of the newly established New Alternative party was shot and killed in Mukdahan province on 27 December.
In the Philippines, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao continues to be a locus of political violence. On 27 December, seven Maute rebels were reportedly killed in a battle with the military in Maguindanao. Two factions of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) also battled each other in a land dispute in Maguindanao, leading to four reported deaths. Otherwise, clashes between two clans in Basilan also led to several deaths. The violence comes as plans are underway for a plebiscite in late January to vote on the Bangsamoro Organic Law which would replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao with the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and give greater autonomy to the region (Rappler, 8 January 2019).
Aside from political violence, a number of protests occurred across the region in the last weeks of 2018. In Indonesia, across various provinces, pro-Papua independence activists staged protests to mark the anniversary of the start of the 1961 campaign by the Indonesian military to take over the former Dutch New Guinea (Radio New Zealand, 21 December 2018). Amid calls for sovereignty in the Papua region, police detained over 100 activists, many from the West Papua National Committee (KPNB). In December, political violence and protest surrounding the issue of Papua independence increased (The Diplomat, 24 December 2018).
Protests in Cambodia likewise increased over the past few weeks with different labour groups calling for better working conditions. A six-day protest was held by workers from the Seduno Investment Cambo Fashion company in Phnom Penh. Land disputes also led to protests when around 1,000 people demonstrated in Kandal province, calling for compensation for their land which had been sold to the Heng Development Company.
In Malaysia, several protests were staged calling for justice in the death of a fireman during the November riots at the Seafield Sri Maha Mariamman Hindu temple in Selangor (for more on this, see this recent ACLED piece). Notably, on 6 January, Malaysia’s king abdicated his throne, the first to do so since the country became independent in 1957 (BBC, 6 January 2019). While a ceremonial position, the king is seen as upholding the Malay-Muslim identity of the nation (South China Morning Post, 7 January 2019), and must approve all senior level government appointments (Channel News Asia, 7 January 2019).
In Laos, in Savannakhet province, the police destroyed the property of a Christian church and arrested seven people for conducting non-authorized church services. The arrests reflect the scrutiny that Christians in Laos often face as Christianity is seen as a foreign religion; authorized church services are often monitored for anti-government sentiment (Radio Free Asia, 2 January 2019).
No political violence or protest events were recorded for Vietnam.